Photography festivals are springing up everywhere these days. In New York, it’s Photoville, a two-weekend celebration of photography that seeks to make the medium accessible and significant. Now in its third year, Photoville, a project by United Photo Industries, goes above and beyond to bring photography to the general public. Overlooking the East River at Brooklyn Bridge Park, Photoville is exactly what the name suggests: a village of 60 small photography exhibitions constructed from shipping containers.
In this digital age, the role of exhibition spaces is a hot topic of discussion. Photoville’s nontraditional spaces and free admission ($3 suggested donation) challenge the conventional model. Without the high admission fees of museums or the intimidating environment of white cube galleries, Photoville’s carnival-like atmosphere—complete with food vendors and a beer garden—invites audiences of all demographics to explore the ideas that animate contemporary photography.
Rather than rely on central planning, Photoville grants each of its partner organizations free range to curate exhibitions in shipping container-galleries. Every curator receives roughly the same corrugated metal rectangle, leveling the playing field among them. Most exhibitions kept it simple by mounting prints to the walls with magnets. Others took the opportunity to completely transform their space. Feature Shoot’s elaborate installation of a 1950s living room is particularly impressive, as is Ian Teh’s minimalist display with piped-in sound. Similarly, the dark, tunnel-like shape of the container could not make for a better venue to exhibit Teun Voeten's series Tunnel People, which documents New York City’s homeless who lived in Amtrak tunnels in the 1990s.
Some big names are represented, like James Nacthwey’s retrospective of hard-hitting news reportage, produced by TIME. In the spirit of community, Instagram was everywhere. Not just for visitors' use—although I’m sure there was plenty of that—but in several well-curated container exhibitions showing prints from various hashtag conversations. Also notable is “The FENCE,” a 1000-foot-long outdoor installation that is simultaneously on view in Boston and Atlanta, and features the work of more than 40 photographers from around the globe.
During the day there are an assortment of lectures and panels to attend, several of which correspond to certain container exhibitions. Additionally, workshops on the technical and business practices of photography are free and open to the public. These seem to be geared more towards new photographers and photo enthusiasts than for professionals, which brings a new demographic to the festival. After dark, the carnival atmosphere is amplified; stepping into each container feels more like stepping into a sideshow or cabinet of curiosities. For video lovers, a large movie screen presents slideshows and films, appropriately titled “Narratively After Dark.”
Reportage and documentary photography are the dominating genres of the festival. Underrepresented in the “fine art” world of museums and galleries, Photoville is making a statement about its importance to the photographic community and beyond. Unlike other festivals or art fairs, the emphasis here is not on sales. Without question, it is the lack of art-as-commodity that is so conducive to these genres. Without the encouragement (or much option) to buy, buy, buy, the conversation centers around the work itself, rather than whether we would like to see it on our walls at home or what we would be willing to spend on a print. It is this kind of conversation that is severely lacking among festivals today, and one element of what makes Photoville a community event and a must see.
Photoville runs through September 28 and is open from 12pm – 8pm.
Kat Kiernan is the Editor-in-Chief of Don't Take Pictures